It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Westfield Countryside mall. In addition to the traditional Christmas decor, shoppers will see more than 100 trees, from 2 to 7 feet tall, dressed with unique, sparkling decorations and waiting for their new holiday homes. It's the 25th annual Festival of Trees, traditionally the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Upper Pinellas Association of Retarded Citizens, commonly known as UPARC. The festival begins tonight with a gala and ends Nov. 29.
The move is a dramatic departure from the festival's former home: Clearwater's Harborview Center, a small convention center that the city plans to shut down early next year.
That means no entry fee for mall visitors, comparatively little overhead for UPARC and plenty of exposure for the event, organizers say.
The synergy between the mall and festival organizers is lighting up smiles on both sides of the aisle.
"We're more exposed and able to get more sponsors and, hopefully, more donations for the trees," said Leeward Bean, co-chairman of the event.
Tara Martin, regional marketing director for Westfield, said the chain of shopping malls was "thrilled about the partnership."
"Our hope is that our energy together will bolster support for this special holiday tradition," she said.
She expects hundreds of thousands of mall shoppers to pass through the doors between now and the end of the week. The festival will run during "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, when shoppers are out in abundance.
Besides trees, bargain hunters and browsers will see a lighter, brighter mall.
The shopping center has just finished its seven-month, $12 million makeover with new carpet, tile and paint, a new children's play area, and energy-efficient lighting and skylights.
Trees will be located in several different pods in the mall and feature themes such as wine, romance, Elvis, butterflies and origami. There's a Barbie tree for the girls, while the boys can drool over the Hot Wheels tree.
Don't miss the extravagant Swarovski crystal tree upstairs near the ice rink.
On Friday, UPARC volunteer Carol Harper was behind closed doors fluffing the white tree donated by Bijoux Jewelers of Westfield Countryside Mall.
When complete, it will be covered with mercury glass ornaments, feathery white doves, sparkling butterflies, organza and 58 Swarovski crystals, she said.
It's to be auctioned off at tonight's Premiere Night Gala along with a weeklong house rental in the Bahamas.
Swarovski crystal trees in the past have brought as much as $12,000 for the UPARC Foundation, said past chairman Dowell Bates.
Tonight's gala is open to the public. Tickets are $75 a ticket, or $100 for a patron. The party features food by 15 area restaurants, holiday libations and a special ice skating show.
Other trees will be offered for a price. Those that don't sell tonight will be raffled off.
Larger trees will be delivered to homes, businesses and organizations Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Beginning Monday, tickets (one for $5 or five for $20) will be sold to shoppers all week long with winning tickets drawn next Sunday after the festival closes. Winners will be contacted shortly after that.
"We're hoping to raise $120,000," Bates said. "Thanks to Westfield, we won't have all the expense we did last year."